As politicians across the political spectrum call for urgent improvements to the test and trace system to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), University of Oxford, urge gig economy platforms to introduce more robust health and safety measures for gig workers. This includes companies paying for workers to get tested if they are worried they have Covid-19.

The Fairwork Foundation report, ‘The Gig Economy and Covid-19: Looking Ahead’ highlights the ongoing predicament of gig workers across the world since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and is calling for gig economy platforms to introduce more tangible support, including free Covid-19 check-ups for workers and their families, and further support for those testing positive.

This latest recommendation is just one of several recommendations in the new Fairwork report, which looks at the responses of 191 platforms across 43 countries to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The report assesses platforms against the policies companies have put in place to protect their workers since the onset of the global pandemic.

Other key recommendations for platforms include:

  • Rapid access to a minimum income (equivalent to at least the local living wage) for those unable to work due to fall-off in demand, to legislative restrictions, or pre-existing health vulnerabilities
  • Additional hazard pay for those facing additional risks while working during the pandemic
  • Accessible sick pay for people unable to work while ill, quarantined or providing care for sick family members
  • Extended sick pay for those workers hospitalised by Covid-19 infection
  • Regular, adequate, free provision of personal protective equipment, disinfectants, gloves and masks

The Fairwork team finds half a year into the pandemic, employers are still failing to protect gig workers against the long-term impacts of Covid-19. The report finds many workers are still are having to choose between holding on to their incomes and putting themselves at risk of contracting coronavirus.  Since the onset of the pandemic, the Fairwork team have noted increased legal push-back on platforms continuing to classify workers as independent contractors and platforms providing few options for support during the pandemic.

Researchers found only 21 of the 191 platforms surveyed had any policies in place to compensate for loss of pay during the pandemic, with many platforms transferring financial protection to government backed schemes, if they are available or they did not provide any support.

Despite the increasing competition for jobs in the gig sector, only two out of the 191 platforms surveyed had stopped recruiting new workers in order to protect income levels for existing workers.

When it comes to bonuses and incentives, less than half of the platforms, just 59 out of the 191 surveyed, guaranteed workers no loss of bonuses and incentives, if they were unable to work during the pandemic lockdown.

On sick pay, whilst just over half of the platforms surveyed offered some form of sick pay for workers, the amounts paid differed substantially across countries but typically were limited.  Although platforms such as ride hailing platform Bolt and food delivery platform Uber Eats in the UK offer workers sick pay, based on an eight-hour working day, income levels at best constitute two-thirds of the UK national minimum wage.

The report also finds that heath and safety measures implemented by companies were often skewed towards protecting and reassuring shareholders, investors and customers, although they also happen to protect workers to some extent.  For example, whilst 60 per cent of surveyed platforms had introduced ‘contact-free services’, researchers found that “contact-free services” are mostly only contact-free for customers rather than workers. Delivery workers on many platforms cannot avoid coming into proximity with the restaurant workers from whom they pick up orders, nor can they refuse service to customers who still prefer to pay by cash.

Researchers also noted the worrying rise in the number of platforms using surveillance measures such as temperature scans for workers, and selfies’ becoming a requirement for receiving orders since the deepening of the pandemic in some countries.

Professor Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography at Oxford Internet Institute, said:

“By comparing the range of policy responses, we have been able to show that while meaningful protections for gig workers may not be widespread, they are possible. Our report highlights what best practice can look like. The task now is to find ways to pressure and regulate those that fall short.”

“Whilst some platforms have stepped up to the plate to provide sick pay for workers, there is still a clear gap between the rhetoric of the vast majority of platform providers and the daily reality of gig workers.

“Our report shows what could be done to provide gig workers with the vital protection they need both now and in the future.  We must retain our focus on holding platforms to account and we urge governments around the world to impose tighter regulations for the protection of gig workers.”

This latest report builds on the findings of the earlier Fairwork Foundation report, ‘The Gig Economy and Covid-19’, published in April 2020.

For more information please call +44 (0)1865 287 210 or contact press@oii.ox.ac.uk.

Notes for editors:

About the research

The report was funded by the University of Oxford Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Impacts of Coivd-19 Urgent Response Fund. The findings are based on desk research, direct communication with platforms and interviews with gig workers at 191 platforms in 43 countries, between May and August 2020.

About the OII

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/